The Real Cost of High-School Dropouts

As college-graduation season wraps up, the opportunity for a $45 billion economic-stimulus package becomes glaringly apparent—cut the high-school dropout rate in half.

05.30.09 6:53 AM ET

Graduation season, typically a celebratory time, has taken on a more somber feel this year as our nation grapples with an economic crisis. Dialed down is the enthusiasm, replaced with worries of a diminishing job market and skyrocketing college tuition. What I find myself thinking about, however, are those young people who won’t get to don a cap and gown—our dropouts.

What isn’t obvious at these ceremonies is that our nation is in the midst of a dropout crisis. Often labeled a silent epidemic because the problem has remained far off the radar screens of most Americans, the reality is too many of our young people can’t begin to imagine going to college or a starting a job because they don’t have a high-school diploma—the very basic necessity for success in this country and a centerpiece of the nation’s ability to compete globally and thrive economically.

Each year, 1.2 million students drop out. That’s 7,000 each school day; one every 26 seconds. The statistics are even more startling for minority students and those educated in our largest cities—where the odds of graduating is essentially a coin toss.

Each year, 1.2 million students drop out. That’s 7,000 each school day; one every 26 seconds.

What most people don’t realize is that when students drop out, it affects everyone—business, government, communities and families. For the dropouts themselves, the impact is obvious. There are limited job opportunities and a substantial reduction in lifetime earnings. In fact, a recent report revealed that dropouts were the only group of wage earners to see their income decline over the last 30 years.

The societal costs are just as ominous. High-school dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated, to rely on social services, and to go without health insurance. Simply cutting the dropout rate in half would generate an additional $45 billion in federal tax revenue and cost savings—an economic stimulus if I’ve ever seen one.

At America’s Promise Alliance, we know the nation’s future is inextricably linked to improving graduation rates. That’s why we launched our Dropout Prevention Campaign last year and are hosting summits in all 50 states and in the 55 cities with the highest dropout rates. So far we have held 40 summits, bringing together more than 15,000 mayors and governors, business owners, child advocates, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students to develop action plans for keeping young people in school.

These summits are a first step in a long-term commitment to save our young people and by extension, our country. To really turn this tide, we’re going to need more than summits and strong schools. We also need more effective afterschool programs, better health care, and parental involvement.

The good news is this problem is solvable and we know where to focus our efforts. The unprecedented collaboration we’re seeing at our summits reinforces the belief that graduation season is best celebrated when all our youth participate, not just some.

Alma J. Powell is chairwoman of the America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest partnership committed to improving the lives of young people. To learn more, visit: